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Podcast: Intercept Reporter Ryan Devereaux on ‘The Drone Papers’ & Afghanistan War

A whistleblower within the United States intelligence community provided secret military documents to The Intercept, which reveal key details about worldwide assassination operations, including drone strikes.

“The Drone Papers,” published by The Intercept on October 15, showed how the U.S. military has designated unidentified men as “Enemies Killed in Action” without confirming whether “targeted killing” operations killed their specific targets or others entirely. During a specific period, over 200 individuals were killed in “Operation Haymaker” in Afghansitan and were marked as EKIAs.

In other words, despite claims by the Obama administration of precision, missiles killed many individuals, who were not people the military meant to target and kill. During this period, the military mostly did not bother to figure out who had been killed instead.

On the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast this week, Intercept staff reporter Ryan Devereaux, who published a story based on “The Drone Papers,” joins the show to talk about what he exposed. In particular, he describes “Operation Haymaker,” which was conducted by special operation forces in Afghanistan. We discuss the significance of documents related to this operation, and why “the source” or whistleblower, who shared these documents, wanted certain information to be public.

During the discussion part of the show, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola talk about escalation of violence by Israeli forces gunning down Palestinians. We highlight the FBI’s data on police killings in 2014 and how Eric Garner and Tamir Rice’s deaths were not included. We talk about an appeals court decision, which allows American Muslims to sue the city of New York over NYPD surveillance, and a lawsuit by former CIA detainees to challenge CIA psychologists, who developed torture techniques used on them in black site prisons.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a link (and also to download the episode), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way by clicking on the player. And please follow the show on Twitter at @UnauthorizedDis.

Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Ryan Devereaux.

GOSZTOLA: Let’s get into your story. The reports deal with everything from the U.S. drone programs. It deals with Yemen and Somalia. But particularly you focused on a period of time in an operation in Afghanistan and what happened in that period. Can you get into your story?

DEVEREAUX: Yeah, exactly. My story is called, “Manhunting in the Hindu Kush,” and it looks at this special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan and right on the border of Pakistand and the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. It was a campaign at uprooting the remaining Taliban and al Qaida elements that had taken up refuge there. The focus of the campaign was really to capture or kill specific individuals so each mission was launched with an objective at the forefront of the mission—Objective being an actual human target and the hope being to actually kill that person or capture that person.

The documents detailed how that campaign went down. They report on numbers of raids and numbers of air strikes and then [inaudible] assessments of how the campaign was looking at times and how it looked at the end. According to our source, who is familiar with these kind of high value targeting operations in Afghanistan, in a campaign like Haymaker [what the operation was called], you could carry them out with any aircraft but he said nine times out of 10 it would be a drone strike.

The documents reveal, in looking at how this campaign ultimately played out, that in the case of raids on the ground the Americans were able to capture dozens of dozens of people, people who could conceivably be taken to a base interrogated. Potentially, if they weren’t the people they were looking for, they could be released. Of course, that’s not something that can happen in the case of an air strike or drone strike.

The sort of disparities between the number of people that are killed in the raids and air strikes is one of the things that jumps out in this set of documents. When the U.S. forces will capture or kill the person they are actually going after, in their records that person will be deemed a “jackpot.” So, the ratios that are presented in the documents “jackpots” to number of operations conducted. And there’s another set of figures that are included in those sort of assessments, and that’s the number of “enemies killed in action” or what they call EKIAs.

The airstrikes will be aiming to take out a specific person, hoping to get a “jackpot.” And, if those airstrikes hit a target, right? According to our source, if the person who was targeted was indeed the person they were after, that’s a “jackpot.” If there were other people that were killed, he said that there is a practice of those people being labeled “enemies killed in action,” an EKIA, in the sort of statistics that are kept on these things unless evidence emerges to prove otherwise. In other words, people are automatically deemed “enemies killed in action” unless there’s some reason that gets presented to prove that they’re not.

KHALEK: So, you’re guilty until proven otherwise from your grave?

DEVEREAUX: That’s one way to put it. It’s pretty grim, but it’s not exactly shocking given some reporting we’ve seen over the years and the way these operations sort of play out. But what this story reveals for the first time is really just like a breakdown of how one of these operations really went. And one of the real striking takeaways from it is even considering how much the U.S. was pounding this area during this particular campaign, there was still almost no real tangible impact on the thing they were trying to achieve, which was uprooting the Taliban and al Qaida.

After two years of these operations, the documents include a sort of assessment of Haymaker. That’s the name of this campaign—Haymaker 1.0 and Haymaker 2.0. 2011, they were killing, according to the documents, approximately one al Qaida target per year. By 2013, it was still only a handful of al Qaida figures they were hitting per year. They were killing a tremendous amount of people, and it seems from the documents a good number of them [were] locally-minded insurgents. But they weren’t doing much to really uproot al Qaida. It leads you to really ask what did this really achieve.

Reports now indicate the al Qaida presence in some of the valleys that this campaign focused on specifically is greater now than it was in 2002, when U.S. forces came to these provinces. It’s a campaign that tells us, I believe, a lot about what this U.S. experience in Afghanistan has looked like.

GOSZTOLA: According to President Obama, we’re going to be leave or he wants to leave 5,000 or more troops in Afghanistan…

KHALEK: Yeah, stellar timing with the release of the story.

DEVEREAUX: I know it might look like it, but that was definitely not intentional. I was on the way to the office yesterday morning real early so we could publish. I was in the cab—I mean, there had been stories in the preceding days that the administration was considering that sort of thing but certainly didn’t know. Like, the story broke yesterday morning that he was going to announce it yesterday, just a few hours after our stories went up. So, it was just kind of surreal.

GOSZTOLA: So take a moment and focus on this because this got quite a bit of attention and I think it’s a rather stark figure. I think you were getting at it in your explanation of the story. There are hundreds of people that were labeled these “enemies killed in action” versus the 35 “jackpots” the military killed in this operations. I’d like you to contextualize what that means. We talk about “targeted killings.” Can we really call it targeted killings if they’re not hitting their targets?

DEVEREAUX: One of the things that people seized on is there was this five month period from this campaign beginning in May 2012. This is right at the time that U.S. is making some big strategic shifts militarily when it comes to Afghanistan, drawing down the big Army-type of war and shifting more to what they would call counterterrorism operations and the sort of training of local forces.

At this time, May 2012—And if you really get into the weeds on this period, this is a time when there is a shift in senior commanders in Afghanistan, special operations commanders—Be that as it may, May 2012, the tempo of operations really picks up. You see 27 raids. So, it’s 27 ground raids and 27 air strikes. In the air strikes, 88 percent appear to have hit people who weren’t the “direct targets.” Each operation is designed to go after a specific person, right? So, 27 operations means 27 people that they were targeting.

During the course of going after those people they hoped to make into “jackpots,” they succeeded in doing that 19 times but they killed 155 people in the process. That indicates that nearly 88% of people that they killed were people they were not directly targeting. You can say like they didn’t hit their intended targets. I hesitate with that language sometimes because they did intend to shoot missiles at these groups of people. They did intend to kill them, but they definitely also killed a lot of people who weren’t their “direct targets,” who weren’t the people they were specifically seeking to kill over this period.

What’s really sort of incredible about all of this is let’s just assume that all of these people who died in these operations were in fact Taliban or al Qaida, some insurgent group that was attacking Americans. Let’s just assume for a moment that’s true. The documents show that at the end of this campaign it made absolutely no effect on things they were trying to achieve. There was a significant body count, but now the situation in Kunar and Nuristan is that the al Qaida presence is greater than it has ever been in the history of the War on Terror. It really leaves you scratching your head as to what did this accomplish really.

Now, the president is describing, talking about how we’re going to be in Afghanistan for an indeterminate amount of time. These sorts of operations, these counterterrorism operations, this “targeted killing” model is poised to become really what the United States does in Afghanistan. It’s going to be a lot of this.

GOSZTOLA: You quote the “source” throughout your report. What was the “source” saying about these documents?

DEVEREAUX: The source in the context of the Afghanistan stuff was really adamant about making clear that the things that we hear about the way that these operations work. The claims that they are incredibly surgical and precise—and sometimes it seems like they’re described as nearly infallible—It’s just not the case. In reality, it’s a much messier situation. And it’s far less perfect than it’s made out to be.

Really, the source’s intention is the public to have documentary evidence in order to come to their own conclusions. As you well know, getting any sort of documentary evidence, any sort of anything when you are looking into “targeted killing” and drone strikes and that sort of thing, has been next to impossible. It’s just been a tremendous challenge for journalists and human rights organizations to pry out the most basic information to just assess what is actually going on. So, the source’s motivation was to try to do something to correct that lack of information.

What we have is a number of documents. It is by no means comprehensive, but it does give us a bit more insight and bit more actual evidence and data to understand what the United States has been doing in the name of the War on Terror.

GOSZTOLA: On the part of the U.S. government, they make a big deal about groups like the ACLU or the New York Times filing a Freedom of Information Act request and requesting the sort of documentation you have, these reports on operations or even the reports that reveal how these operations are undertaken, but it’s pretty clear when you look at this that [the documents] aren’t putting anything at risk in giving us this knowledge. It just puts the Obama administration on the defensive to explain what they’re doing.

DEVEREAUX: Or, it should. Their position has been to not comment on it, just not even talk about it at all. But you’re right that this information is not putting people at risk. It’s allowing the public to have the information it needs to assess claims that are made, claims that we’re supposed to just trust and believe without anything to back them up. Right, we’ve been told a lot about how effective and surgical these missions are, but there’s no way to ascertain whether or not that is true if you don’t have evidence to look at.

Human rights groups have done a lot of work in a lot of these locations that have indicated—They’ve painted a picture that is a lot more like what these documents are reflecting, which is a far, far less precise, far less surgical program. A lot of what has been reported by those sorts of groups and by journalists over the last few years looks a lot more like the case now that we have some documents.

For the rest of the interview, listen to the podcast episode here.

File: Three soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces run with automatic weapons during last summer's attack on Gaza, in this photograph from August 4, 2014.  (Flickr / Israel Defense Forces)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."